Health secretary fighting an 'emotionally draining' battle - Albuquerque Journal

Health secretary fighting an ’emotionally draining’ battle

New Mexico Health Secretary Kathy Kunkel takes part in a coronavirus news conference at the state Capitol on Wednesday. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Toughest day?

As New Mexico’s fight against the coronavirus pandemic stretches from weeks into months, state Health Secretary Kathy Kunkel can’t pick one day tougher than others.

But there have been days that have been more challenging, more frustrating.

“Relentless days, days when I don’t move from my computer from 6:15 a.m. to 6:15 p.m., 14- and 15-hour days, days when I feel I’m not measuring up, not doing all that I could,” Kunkel said.

But she fears that she may not yet have had her toughest day.

“We have not peaked yet,” she said. “We don’t know yet what New Mexico’s future looks like.”

Kunkel, 68, is the widow of Dr. James Michael Kunkel, who was chief of vascular surgery at University of New Mexico Hospital.

Cabinet Secretary Kunkel’s training is in social work and law. She earned a law degree from the University of New Mexico in 2003.

However, she has a lot of experience in New Mexico’s health community. Kunkel worked eight years at UNM’s Health Sciences Center, starting as a pediatric social worker and then moving on to assistant director of care management services.

She was an assistant attorney general for New Mexico from 2004 to 2007. And she worked for seven years in different areas of the Department of Health, four of those years as deputy director at the Developmental Disabilities Division, before Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham appointed her DOH secretary in January 2019.

“I was ready to retire,” Kunkel said in a recent phone interview. “I’m no spring chicken. But I have such respect for the governor.”

The Health Department has eight divisions and 3,000 employees, the largest workforce of any state department.

“It’s hard enough to run on a good day,” Kunkel said. And then coronavirus came.

She said she is fortunate that the department’s staff is made up of dedicated people, many of whom have been with the department for many years.

“But it would not be truthful if I said (fighting the pandemic) is not a problem,” she said. “It is hard to find balance in my life. It is very stressful, emotionally draining.”

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, left, bumps elbows with state Health Secretary Kathy Kunkel after a news conference in the Governor’s Office in early March. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Testing is key

New Mexico has had 5,938 coronavirus cases and 265 coronavirus deaths.

There have been 133,253 coronavirus tests in the state.

“In the overall battle, knowing where the virus is and catching it first is the only weapon we have,” she said. “To do as many tests as we have done is a positive thing and has made a difference.”

The virus came later to New Mexico than to some other states. Kunkel said the state started testing Feb. 28 and did not get a positive result until March 11.

“We got ahead on testing,” she said.

Not that there were not rough spots in the process, especially early.

“It was a struggle to get supplies,” Kunkel said. “It was a struggle to get nasal swabs for collecting specimens and then to get the ingredients for testing the specimens at the lab. We were competing with our sister states, which was really painful.”

She said supplies have been less of a problem recently because the federal government has stepped up to help.

Health Department officials said Sunday that the state was able to administer more than 5,000 tests a day. They have said their goal is to reach more than 7,000 tests per day, a rate that is one of the keys to further reopening the state.

“Testing is what we have until we get a vaccine,” she said.

Strong action

Other than testing, Kunkel said, the major component in New Mexico’s campaign against the pandemic has been the courage to take strong action. Closing schools early is one such example, she said. Another was implementing emergency measures for more than a week earlier this month in Gallup, restricting business hours and closing roads into the city to nonresidents.

Gallup is the county seat of McKinley County, which has 3.5% of the state’s population but 30% of its COVID-19 cases.

“New Mexico can be proud of (the tough calls),” she said. “But the other part of that puzzle is that you have to support the people affected through unemployment (benefits) and with food services and water.”

She knows that the limitations of life with coronavirus are difficult for everyone.

“I appreciate people’s frustrations. It’s beautiful weather out there. People are getting outside, and some people are not wearing masks. People have to appreciate the restrictions. Masks help.”

More recently, Kunkel said, the Department of Health has been focusing on special populations – the homeless, people with mental illnesses, people with substance abuse problems.

“If you get sick, you are told to go home and self-isolate, and DOH will call you every day,” she said.

But what if you don’t have a home to go to or are not able to function as most people do?

Kunkel said the Health Department is working with Gallup, Farmington and Albuquerque to make housing available to this especially vulnerable segment of people.

“The real protection is to keep the virus out,” she said.

Sleepless nights

Kunkel was born into a “family of accountants” in the Detroit area. She became interested in social work because her parents opened their home to foster children.

She got a bachelor’s degree in sociology from the College of Mount St. Joseph, now Mount St. Joseph University, near Cincinnati, and a master’s in social work from Michigan State University.

She moved to New Mexico in the late 1980s when her husband went to work for UNM Hospital. Dr. Kunkel died in 1990, just before his 40th birthday, leaving Kathy Kunkel the widowed mother of a daughter and two sons.

So tough times are not new to her.

She managed a career, continued her education and raised her children. Her daughter is a biophysicist in San Diego, one son is a geneticist in Albuquerque and the other a nurse in Vermont.

She is working from her Albuquerque home during the coronavirus crisis, getting up at 5 a.m. and starting each day with a 6:15 a.m. phone meeting with Katrina Hotrum-Lopez, secretary of New Mexico’s Aging and Long-Term Services Department.

“We talk about issues. We have a testing plan for long-term care facilities,” Kunkel said.

Communication, she said, is a major challenge: trying to stay on the same page with the many others using, looking for and allocating resources in the coronavirus battle.

“There are lots of meetings now, a lot of meetings,” she said. “And there are some sleepless nights.”

Long road

Kunkel said she is bolstered by the public’s support, the encouraging emails she receives, the people who leave gifts such as a cheese and wine basket at her door.

“My neighbors across the street found out I had jelly beans for dinner one night, and since then they cook me dinner every night.”

She’s grateful because she’s on a long road with blind curves.

“I have not found a point yet,” she said, “when I can take my foot off the pedal.”

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